Farmers march through the streets of Muzaffarnagar, in a defiant protest against the Indian government's agricultural reforms.
New Delhi CNN  — 

Marking the return of a months-long movement that has posed a unique challenge to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, farmers gathered in the predominantly agricultural state of Uttar Pradesh on Sunday to protest controversial agricultural laws they say could ruin their livelihood.

District official Amit Singh told CNN about 150,000 people attended the rally, in the city of Muzaffarnagar. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) farmers’ group said about 1 million protesters were present.

Rakesh Tikait, a prominent farmer’s leader, told protesters that Sunday’s demonstration will reignite the movement, which through December saw tens of thousands of people camp around the outskirts of India’s capital New Delhi, blocking major roads and paralyzing traffic. The protests had quietened down in April, when India was devastated by a second wave of coronavirus infections.

“When this protest succeeds, when the farmers and the youth of India win, then only will we leave,” Tikait said.

Farmer leaders are now calling for a nationwide strike on September 27, although pleas for similar strikes in the past have met with limited success.

Farmers shout slogans in protest against the  government's agricultural reforms, which they say will ruin their livelihood.

Challenges to Modi’s government

In India, farming is a central political issue, and the protests pose a rare threat to Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Farmers are the biggest voting bloc in the country, and the agricultural sector sustains about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion citizens. Angering farmers could see Modi lose a significant chunk of votes at the next general election in 2024.

For almost nine months, Indian farmers have been fighting three new laws, which they say will leave them open to exploitation by large corporations and destroy their livelihoods. The laws, which were passed last September, loosened rules around the sale and pricing of produce that have protected farmers from an unregulated free market for decades.

Under the previous laws, farmers had to sell their goods at auction at their state’s Agricultural Produce Market Committee, where they were guaranteed to receive at least the government-agreed minimum price. There were restrictions on who could buy, and prices were capped for essential commodities.

The new laws dismantled this structure, instead allowing farmers to sell their goods to anyone for any price. The government say the reforms are needed to modernize the country’s agricultural industry, but many farmers argue it will allow large corporations to drive prices down.

Modi has failed to quell the demonstrations, and negotiations between his government and the farmer’s unions have been unsuccessful.

In mid-January, India’s Supreme Court temporarily suspended the laws, in the hopes the farmers might “come to the negotiating table with confidence and good faith.”

But the protests continued, with some farmers vowing not to leave until the laws are fully repealed.

Government criticism

Sunday’s rally in Muzaffarnagar is of particular importance, as the state of Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous – will hold a state assembly election early next year.

SKM said the rally was a “warning” to the state government. “If the government does not repeal all three agricultural laws and does not give legal guarantee for the purchase of agricultural products, then the movement will be intensified,” the group said in a statement.

In February, authorities blocked internet access in several districts bordering New Delhi after violent skirmishes erupted between police and farmers at a protest site.

India’s Ministry of Home Affairs said the move was “in the interest of maintaining public safety and averting public emergency.” However, protesters condemned the shutdown, with one farmer’s union leader, Darshan Pal, calling the move “undemocratic.”

In February, 16 opposition parties in a joint statement accused Modi and the BJP of using excessive force and being “arrogant, adamant and undemocratic in their response.”

Since then, a growing litany of international celebrities – including pop star Rihanna, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and author Meena Harris – joined calls to amplify the movement.

Anurag Thakur, a politician with the BJP, said Sunday that Modi’s government is open to talks with farmers’ groups and is working toward increasing their income.

Sunday’s mass gathering also took place despite India being on alert for a potential third coronavirus wave.

“We have been reaching out to farmers and supporters to wear masks,” Ashutosh Mishra, media coordinator for the farmers’ groups, told CNN.

CNN’s Rishabh M Pratap contributed to this report